NEWPORT, R.I. — Faced with eroding support even among longtime Republican allies in Congress, President Bush argued Thursday that the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq is working and urged Americans and lawmakers to give the military operation more time to succeed.
In a speech to military scholars at the U.S. Naval War College, the president gave his own report on the plan's progress, detailing what he described as "good results" attributable to the buildup he authorized last winter, including a decrease in sectarian killings and the capture of insurgent leaders.
Although he acknowledged setbacks and uneven progress, Bush made his most detailed case to date that the troop buildup is working and emphasized that the last brigade of additional troops arrived in Iraq just weeks ago.
"It's a well-conceived plan by smart military people, and we owe them the time and we owe them the support they need to succeed," Bush said.
While expressing frustration with the Iraqi government's failure to enact political reforms, he said that even "long-established democracies" work slowly and appealed for lenience.
Bush's comments come at a time when popular and congressional support for the war -- and the troop increase initiated in January -- has diminished even faster than the White House had anticipated.
Earlier this week, a key administration ally, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a leading voice on international affairs, said in a speech on the Senate floor that he could no longer support the strategy.
The White House dispatched National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley to meet with Lugar on Thursday, part of a new, orchestrated effort to buy the military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, more time to show progress ahead of an expected evaluation of the plan in September.
White House officials said the president plans additional speeches in coming weeks to make the case that the strategy was gaining traction. The addresses will be aimed at wavering Republicans as much as at an increasingly skeptical public.
A CNN poll this week showed American support for the war had dropped to 30%, the lowest level since the 2003 invasion.
The progress cited by Bush consisted of a mix of small tactical gains and broader signs that the Iraqi government was more effective in providing security for its own people.
He noted the recent killing of two Sunni extremist leaders north of Baghdad, for example, and the dismantling of five Shiite militia cells in the capital during the last two weeks.
Bush also said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had lived up to his commitments to provide troops for the new security plan and had effectively dealt with the fallout following the recent bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra. He credited the government in Baghdad with allowing U.S. military commanders enough leeway to carry out their operations.
"They're becoming more capable and coming closer to the day when they can assume responsibility for defending their own country," Bush said.
However, the developments cited by Bush have been the subject of debate. For instance, U.S. military commanders in recent weeks have raised questions about the Iraqi army's ability to take over on its own anytime soon. Also, one of the advances cited by Bush, involving cooperation between U.S. forces and Sunni Arab sheiks in Anbar province, was underway before the start of the troop buildup. That initiative suffered a significant setback when several of the sheiks were assassinated in the bombing of a Baghdad hotel earlier this week.
Bush also cited declines in both civilian deaths and suicide bombings in recent months. The initial drop in civilian deaths in Baghdad earlier this year was one of the most impressive gains of the troop buildup. But killings began rising again in May.
Still, Bush expressed confidence that the new U.S. troop presence, with the added ability to hold neighborhoods cleared of insurgents, gradually will turn the tide. He pointed to new soccer leagues and amusement parks in Baghdad as signs of progress and warned against cutting his plan short.
"If we withdraw before the Iraqi government can defend itself ... the consequences for America and the Middle East would be disastrous," Bush said.
Reynolds reported from Newport and Spiegel from Washington.